The main theme of the story can be summed up in Johnny’s words to Ponyboy in his letter, “There’s still lots of good in the world. Tell Dally. I don’t think he knows” (179). It is the story of a boy’s journey to a deep understanding about the world he lives in and the people that inhabit it. A strong symbol in the story is the poem by Robert Frost. Ponyboy learns the true meaning of it when Johnny explains it to him, how the world all around was grown up and hard and bitter. The good in the world was the gold that was hard to see, but was still there to find. In the end, Ponyboy finds his way to hope and decides to share what he has learned with the world.
The book, as the lessons that Ponyboy has observed, is written in first person. In this case, it is valuable as a tool to bring us very close to the action. We feel the emotions that Ponyboy experiences very closely. We experience the frustration of having nothing as a greaser, the despair of having killed Bob, the pain of losing Dallas and Johnny after discovering that they were good people after all, and the joy of finally finding the way home when Ponyboy is reconciled with his brother Darry.
There are two main plot conflicts in the story, that of the greasers versus the Socs, and that of hope versus despair within Ponyboy. The first is easy to observe, and is simple at the beginning. The greasers and the Socs hate each other, fight with each other, and think the worst of each other. Through the story we see Ponyboy learning to look at the Socs as people, rather than as a group to be hated and feared. The first thing that happens to change his mind is when he meets Cherry. She is a Soc, but she listens to him explain about life as a greaser. When he tells her of Johnny’s being beat up, she pleads with him that not all Socs are the same, pointing out that not all greasers are as rough as Dallas. Then she tells him that, “Things are rough all over” (35).
It is Cherry who first draws the parallel, although unknowingly, between her boyfriend, Bob, and the greaser, Dallas. Although the two are from opposite sides of the conflict, they are parallel foil characters. Both are the leaders of their gangs, because there is something in them that makes people want to follow them. Both of them are rough and appear to have no feelings -- Bob beat Johnny senseless and almost killed Ponyboy, and Dallas was a true hood who had been in jail and his own gang members feared to cross him.
As the story progresses, however, we see that both have another side to them. A theme is woven through the story, that people are more than what they seem to be, and usually have some good to them. We see Dallas taking the heat from the cops for Johnny and Ponyboy after he helped them escape. He faces the fire to rescue Johnny and we find out that he truly loves his battered friend. We never really see Bob’s good side, but we hear of it from his girlfriend, who says that he can be sweet and that there’s something in him that makes him better than the rest of the crowd (129). We also hear it from Bob’s friend, Randy, who says that Bob was the best friend that he ever had, and that all he ever wanted was for someone to stand up to him (117). It’s in this exchange, through the parallel that he draws between Bob and Dallas, that Ponyboy learns something valuable, “Socs were just guys after all. Things were rough all over, but it was better that way. That way you could tell the other guy was human too” (118).
The other conflict, that of hope and despair battling within Ponyboy, is perhaps more difficult to see. Hope and despair battle in him as he is involved in a murder, becomes a hero, loses two of his best friends, and goes through a long period of depression. It is only when he finds Johnny’s note that he is finally rescued from despair. Johnny tells him that it was worth it, dying for the kids and that Ponyboy can make something of himself if he wants to. He tells him to “stay golden”, to keep loving sunsets, and to remember that there was good in the rest of the world.